Clad in military fatigues, Sydney man Ahmed Merhi holds a large assault rifle while posing for a photo. Picture: Supplied
Clad in military fatigues, Sydney man Ahmed Merhi holds a large assault rifle while posing for a photo. Picture: Supplied

Aussie jihadi’s death row hell hole

Australian terrorist Ahmed Merhi is being held in a cramped, filthy Iraqi jail cell with 14 other men, living on limited rations of rice, date syrup and jam as he awaits the hangman's noose.

The 27-year-old Sydney man was on Thursday night convicted of being a member of Islamic State, and handed the death penalty.

The ruling came almost 11 months after Merhi was arrested as he tried to sneak out of Syria. They have not been easy months for the jihadi, who once delighted in posting selfies on social media, wearing military fatigues and brandishing guns.

He has no medication to ease the pain he suffers after his leg was blown off in an air strike in Syria in 2016. He hobbles around on two crutches, wearing the orange or brown jumpsuit of an Iraqi prisoner.

Sydney man Ahmed Merhi has been handed the death penalty in Iraq after he was convicted for being a member of Islamic State. Picture: Supplied
Sydney man Ahmed Merhi has been handed the death penalty in Iraq after he was convicted for being a member of Islamic State. Picture: Supplied

Small wonder then that he has turned to Australia - the country he turned his back on three or four years ago - and asked for help to escape his miserable existence in Iraq.

A News Corp investigation, which looked at Lebanese intelligence reports, spoke to security sources in several countries and interviewed Merhi and his jihadi cousin Tarek Khayat multiple times in court, has discovered extensive details about Merhi's life since he was captured by Kurdish-backed forces in northern Syria late last year.

It can be revealed Merhi is seeking to whitewash his history and now claims to be a volunteer nurse who never fought for Islamic State at all.

One of Merhi’s lawyers told News Corp they had asked the Australian Embassy to pay US $30,000 to cover his legal expenses. They refused. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen
One of Merhi’s lawyers told News Corp they had asked the Australian Embassy to pay US $30,000 to cover his legal expenses. They refused. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

Merhi told News Corp during one of his court appearances that he was never a fighter, but went to Syria to perform aid work for civilians harmed by the Assad regime's bombing campaign.

He said he was based in Tel Abyadh, a northern Syrian town on the Turkish border which never fell to Islamic State.

Asked by the court when he had joined Islamic State, he replied: "I never joined.''

"I never fought Iraqi forces, and the first time I saw them was then (sic.) the Americans handed me to them,'' he said.

His lawyers said he worked for an NGO, Syria Charity International. If such an organisation exists, it was not obvious in English-language searches online.

Merhi is being held in the same grim prison in the Al-Harthiya district in Baghdad as his cousin Khayat, who has also been sentenced to death after being admitting he was a financial officer for Islamic State.

Khayat is accused in Australia and Lebanon of being the mastermind of the alleged Barbie doll bomb plot, where an attempt was allegedly made to bring down an Etihad Airways flight out of Sydney with 400 people on board using two IEDs packed into a Barbie doll and meat-mincer.

He denies involvement.

Merhi was born at Westmead Public Hospital, NSW, to Muslim parents who did not consider themselves to be particularly devout. Picture: AAP/Carmela Roche
Merhi was born at Westmead Public Hospital, NSW, to Muslim parents who did not consider themselves to be particularly devout. Picture: AAP/Carmela Roche

Merhi outlined to News Corp the miserable conditions in the jail on the edge of Baghdad city's green zone, where he shares a 3m x 8m cell with 14 other men.

"The food is bad. A small plate of rice every day,'' Merhi said.

"Some dates syrup. Not enough calories, 17g of other jam four times a week. No medicine or drugs.''

In constant pain from his leg injury, Merhi asked the Australian Embassy to assist him obtaining painkillers. They were not able to supply him with the medication he required.

A consular official from the Australian Embassy in Baghdad has been in court for Merhi's

appearances, along with an interpreter. They also visit him once a month in jail.

One of Merhi's lawyers told News Corp they had asked the Australian Embassy to pay US $30,000 - the equivalent of $A44,000 - to cover his legal expenses. They refused. His lawyers dropped the price to US$18,000 ($A25,000).

According to the lawyers, the embassy officials said they would "ask Sydney.''

The answer came back quickly. No.

By the time he has reached his early 20s, Merhi was an unemployed, drug-taking petty criminal. Picture: Supplied
By the time he has reached his early 20s, Merhi was an unemployed, drug-taking petty criminal. Picture: Supplied

Life now looks very grim indeed for Merhi, whose case has gone to an automatic appeal. He is holding out hope that it, like the case against his cousin, might be sent back to the investigations court.

Ahmed Mohammed Abdul-Kereem Merhi was born at Sydney's Westmead Hospital on October 29, 1991.

The son of Lebanese migrants, he was raised Muslim by parents who did not consider themselves particularly devout.

He attended Granville High School to year 10, got a job as a builder's labourer and lived a fairly ordinary, albeit underachieving, suburban life in western Sydney.

By the time he had reached his early 20s though, Merhi was an unemployed, drug-taking petty

criminal, later described by his own father as "stupid.''

He began taking an interest in extremist groups and by 2014, was fully supportive of Islamic State, the vicious terror group which had declared a caliphate across Iraq and Syria.

According to Australian authorities, Merhi began raising funds and helping funnel money to the group, and in either 2014 or 2015, slipped out of Sydney and made his way to Syria after telling his family he was going to perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage that all devout Muslims are required to make to Mecca.

But instead of going to Saudi Arabia, he went to war-torn Syria.

His contacts there included Neil Prakash, the Melbourne-born Islamic State cheerleader currently on trial in Turkey, and Mohammed al-Baryalei, a Sydney extremist and Islamic State recruiter believed killed in the Middle East in 2014.

Merhi, who is fluent in English and Arabic, used social media including Facebook and Twitter to spread IS propaganda, and posted photographs of himself wearing military camouflage and

brandishing AK-47s and smaller handguns.

This week, he said it was just like posting photographs of Ferraris or models, and didn't mean he owned them.

"My photos with guns on social media came because there are a lot of guns in Syria and men like guns,'' he told News Corp.

"So I took some photos and posted them on my Facebook.''

In an April 2016 interview with The Australian newspaper, his father Faraj said his son was "on drugs or something…we tried to help him a lot.''

"He was going the wrong way when he was here, too,'' Mr Merhi said, adding that his son was "wild, he was stupid. One time he got arrested for drugs, but little drugs. He didn't go to jail for it … Another time assault or something, I don't know what it is.''

Merhi ignored pleas from his family to return home and stayed in Syria, supporting the caliphate's murderous expansion. Somewhere, he hooked up with his cousin Tarek Khayat. The two Khayat and Merhi families, scattered throughout Australia and Lebanon, are a large, intermingled family where several sisters and brothers married between their families. Merhi's father is sister to Tarek Hayat's mother.

But by 2017, the caliphate crumbled and Islamic State began to lose the war. Merhi and Khayat, like so many other cowardly jihadist, looked to get out.

Merhi ignored pleas from his family to return home and stayed in Syria, supporting the caliphate’s murderous expansion. Picture: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP
Merhi ignored pleas from his family to return home and stayed in Syria, supporting the caliphate’s murderous expansion. Picture: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

In 2016, Merhi had been severely injured in an air strike, possibly carried out by the western

Coalition including Australia. His left leg was torn off below the thigh. He took months to heal.

Khayat also lost a leg in a separate air strike in 2017.

Merhi told a News Corp representative in Baghdad that once he was sufficiently recovered, he tried to escape back over the border into Turkey.

He joined a group of 21 people. These included his heavily-pregnant Syrian wife and his cousin Khayat.

They tried to make their escape from the far north-eastern corner of Syria, up near the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

On December 27, near the city of Al-Hasakah, the group was overrun by American-backed Kurdish fighters, who were fighting their own war against Islamic State in the north of Syria and parts of Iraq.

They were all captured.

The 27-year-old attended Granville High School to year 10, got a job as a builder’s labourer and lived a fairly ordinary suburban life in western Sydney. Picture: Stephen Cooper
The 27-year-old attended Granville High School to year 10, got a job as a builder’s labourer and lived a fairly ordinary suburban life in western Sydney. Picture: Stephen Cooper

According to Merhi, he was detained in the Syrian city of Kobani for three days before the Kurds handed him to the Americans, who are operating discreetly in Iraq and Syria.

They in turn took him over the border to Iraq and held him in the northern city of Erbil for two weeks, before he was transferred to the custody of Iraqi Counter-Terrorism authorities in Baghdad.

Iraqi forces tortured him, he claimed to News Corp, and to the courts. A judge sent him for a medical examination to see if his claims of torture could be confirmed. The medical report has not been released.

Word of his arrest did not leak out until April this year. The Australian Government has not said if it is attempting to extradite Merhi.

It appears no extradition application has been lodged, and Merhi's legal representatives told News Corp they were not aware of any approach to return him to Australia. He has two local lawyers representing him- Khaldoon Al Kinani and Dr Ziad Abdul-Lateef.

Mr Al Kinani told News Corp the death penalty was a "very severe sentence'' and they would be appealing.

Merhi was convicted under Iraqi law of being a member of terrorist organisation in Iraq.

Merhi began taking an interest in extremist groups and by 2014, was fully supportive of Islamic State. He slipped out of Sydney to join the terror group soon after. Picture: Supplied
Merhi began taking an interest in extremist groups and by 2014, was fully supportive of Islamic State. He slipped out of Sydney to join the terror group soon after. Picture: Supplied

Mr Al Kinani said Merhi had never been to Iraq, and had only arrived there in the custody of the Americans, who flew him there on an American military plane.

"There is no direct evidence and no eye witnesses,'' he said, adding that Merhi had not willingly crossed the border into Iraq.

Merhi and Khayat do not share a cell at the prison, although they do see each other occasionally, Merhi said.

Khayat's death penalty is currently being reviewed and Merhi said his cousin's case had gone back to the investigations court, the first in two-step process to gauge guilt or innocence.

Khayat has a number of family members in Australia, although he is not an Australian citizen.

In an interview with News Corp in October, Khayat asked that his Syrian wife be informed of his death sentence.

No one in Australia will have much sympathy for the jihadi cousins.

Police believe Merhi was in direct contact with members of a dangerous Islamic State cell responsible for several thwarted terror plots, and for shooting dead police accountant Curtis Cheng outside the Parramatta police station in 2015.

Several members of his family have also been charged with wiring money to him in the Middle East, totalling tens of thousands of dollars.

One of the people involved in sending him money was the extremist Milad Atai, 22, who was convicted of aiding the radicalised teenager who murdered Mr Cheng, before being killed by police.



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